Last weekend, Brian and I made our first venture of 2011 into the countryside south of London known as the North Downs. As a team, we have set ourselves a January target of each member getting through at least 250km of riding each week. A big bite can be taken out of this target by foregoing the Sunday morning lie in and heading out of London for a 4 to 5 hour ride.
The chalk spine of the North Downs that runs from Surrey in the west out to the White Cliffs of Dover in the east provides weekend cyclists with a series of hills on which to test their fitness. In comparison to say the Alps or the Dolomites, the height gain of these hills is negligible. However, the hills of the North Downs tend to be very steep and with gradients ranging from 8 to 20 per cent, they pack enough of a punch to get your heart racing and your lungs burning.
This was what Brian and I had got planned as we made our way beyond the radio transmitting tower at Crystal Palace and out into the greenery towards Oxted and Westerham. Unfortunately, our best laid plans came unstuck as with every mile we travelled out of central London the roads became increasingly slippery with ice. There was no way we could continue in such treacherous conditions (we witnessed one rider being forced into a ditch by a reckless driver of a 4×4 who skidded around a corner sideways after entering far too fast for the conditions – luckily the cyclist escaped unhurt) and so we decided to abandon and head for home.
That was the first bit of bad luck. The second came as we were making our way home via Biggin Hill airport. As I was riding up a steep incline, my chain snapped under the force and I narrowly avoided toppling over by desperately unclipping my shoes at the very last moment. About 25 minutes passed as I fiddled with the chain, my hands getting colder and unable to do the job I was asking of them. Finally I repaired the chain and re-fitted it to the bike. That was slice of bad luck number 2, closely to be followed by number 3.
No sooner had I got back on the bike when I heard another noise – now the rear gear cable had severed. This was turning into a bruising Sunday morning ride and not just for my legs. I had no spare cable and Brian and I bore searching looks across our faces – how exactly were we going to nurse the bike home? Rather fortunately, I had broken down in the driveway of a man who turned out to be an ex-rider. He had a spare cable and possessed the necessary mechanical skills (which I hasten to add I did not) to fix on a new cable. (A big thanks go to that man for without him we would have been stranded.) The only remaining problem was that some of the old cable was still left in my gear shifters and would not budge, meaning I had to cycle the final 30km in just one gear. This was turning into the ride from hell.
The only highlight of the ride was that the new cold weather gear I received over Christmas worked very well. My new Assos jacket kept the worst of the wind away and the LOOK branded bib shorts and fleecy jersey I was wearing were equally warm. I suspect had I been shivering away whilst trying to fix my stuttering bike, my mood might not have been as relaxed as it was! (Thanks go to a generous member of LOOK France who, via my girlfriend, sent me some LOOK gear to put to good use for the RAAM cause).
I am happy to report both Brian and I made it home safely and in one piece, albeit my bike did not. We later learned that conditions all over the south-east had been dangerously icy (despite no prior warning from the weather forecasters). Of the 8 riders who Rob had separately ventured into Essex with, only 4 (including Rob) managed to avoid hitting the tarmac (one rider suffering worst of all with a set of broken ribs). With hindsight, perhaps I was lucky after all.